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Sights set on rebuilding historic bar destroyed by fire

The Montana Standard

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    BUTTE, Montana (The Montana Standard) — There’s nothing left but piles of bricks and charred rubble where the M&M Cigar Store served as an anchor icon to Uptown Butte for 130 years.

Nothing but its historic neon sign survived a fire that gutted the building on Friday, leaving nothing but saw-toothed sections of bricks on the east and west sides. For safety reasons, the entire east wall and façade were brought down with a backhoe.

The long, wooden bar on one side, the long lunch counter on the other, the tin roof and the swinging steel doors, the gambling room in the back — things that made the place the M&M for decades — are all gone.

It’s hard to imagine now, and it will take all kinds of money, and some things will never be the same, and there will be naysayers no matter what. But there can be a new M&M.

“I absolutely intend to put a new M&M right back where it was,” Selina Pankovich, who has owned and operated the famous bar and eatery since December 2017, told The Montana Standard on Monday.

“There are so many unknowns right now about how I’m going to make it happen,” she said. “It’s going to take a series of small miracles is the way I envision it. It’s going to take the community, it’s going to take the grants, it’s going to take the insurance money and it’s going to take my own personal investment to do it, but I’m committed to doing all of that.”

Even when flames were still flaring and the giant neon M&M sign had yet to be lifted to safety on Friday, Butte-Silver Bow’s top official was predicting an “outcry of support” for bringing the M&M back.

“This building has meant so much to everyone’s childhood and memories of Butte,” said Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher. “I can’t imagine that we can’t raise some money to try to help her (Pankovich) get back on her feet. I think it’s critical that we get this building rebuilt.”

Look no further than Anaconda, Deer Lodge and Bozeman to find iconic places nearly or completely destroyed in recent years that were rebuilt.

Fire gutted the Rialto Theater in Deer Lodge in 2006. A gas explosion took out an entire city block in downtown Bozeman, including the famed Rocking R Bar, in 2009. The Club Moderne in Anaconda was heavily damaged by fire in 2016.

There were differences in recovery plans and the money that paid their way, but all were rebuilt.

“It’s still a private building but we would help in any efforts that we could,” Gallagher said Monday. “I don’t know what that is yet, but my thoughts, in speaking with Selina, is this building needs to be rebuilt. The M&M needs to come back to life.”

Firefighters were called to the M&M at 3 a.m. Friday, about two-and-a-half hours after employees had locked up for the night, and found flames coming from the hood system above the grill.

Zach Osborne, Butte-Silver Bow’s fire marshal, said Monday there was fire there and in the duct system but what sparked it will likely never be known because the destruction was so immense.

There had been a malfunctioning compressor in the basement that could have overheated, but fire was not detected in the basement. An investigation will continue, Osborne said, but there is little hope of pinning down a cause.

Osborne said fire crews stayed on the scene all night Friday, all day Saturday and into Sunday morning before the rubble finally stopped smoldering. What remained was turned over to Pankovich and her insurance carrier around 4 p.m. Sunday.

Pankovich said she had insurance on the building and its contents, as well as business-interruption insurance, so there will be a payout. But she noted “the times we are in right now,” meaning the price of lumber and other building materials.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, those costs have nearly tripled from a year ago. That’s due in large part to supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic.

“Anything you build is going to cost three to four times what it would have cost a year ago,” Pankovich said.

She said she felt a lot of pressure to make the M&M successful after she bought it in late 2017, given its history and importance to Butte and its people.

“I knew it was going to be a big job and it wasn’t easy getting there, and I knew that when I got there, that wasn’t it either — I had to maintain it and keep it going,” Pankovich said. “And man, we were on our way to the best year ever, I’m sure in the history of the M&M.

“It’s so frustrating and heartbreaking to know where we were headed, and at the same time, I know we can do it again. I feel like it’s something we need to move on quickly, because I don’t want anyone to forget.”

Gallagher said it was too early to say how local government could help in the rebuilding effort, but he would explore all avenues. One could involve assistance from the Urban Renewal Agency and its tax-increment district covering much of Uptown Butte.

URA Director Karen Byrnes agreed.

“We need to work with Selina to see what she is interested in doing and there’s a lot to go through at this point in time, but we would be, as an agency, 100% behind new construction of the M&M,” she said.

Pankovich said there would be an account set up to accept donations, with legal assurances that all contributions go to a rebuilding effort and refunds are made if it’s not successful.

She also said there’s been great interest from people wanting bricks from the old M&M, and some people have suggested she sell them, but it’s premature and too dangerous to remove any bricks from the site right now.

When it is safe, she said, she wants to give them away with suggestions they instead contribute to the rebuilding campaign.

“I want everyone to have a piece of the M&M,” she said.

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